Respondents owned property abutting a section of highway in
Pennsylvania which was about to be designated as a "limited access
highway" under authority of a Pennsylvania statute which provides
that the owners of property affected by the designation of a
"limited access highway" shall be entitled "only to damages arising
from an actual taking of property," and not for "consequential
damages where no property is taken." They sued in a Federal
District Court for injunctive relief and a judgment declaring the
statute unconstitutional. The District Court stayed its proceedings
to permit the parties to seek a determination of their rights under
the Act in the state courts. They brought an equity suit in a state
court, which held that the Act provides a method by which every
property owner may have it decided whether he is entitled to
compensation, and, if so, for what and in what amounts, and that
their constitutional rights, whatever they may be, will be
protected. The State Supreme Court affirmed. Thereafter, the
District Court concluded that the State Legislature did not intend
to compensate abutting landowners whose rights of access to an
existing highway are destroyed by its designation as a limited
access highway, and that the Act violated the Due Process Clause of
the Fourteenth Amendment, and it permanently enjoined the Governor
and the Secretary of Highways from proceeding further.
the circumstances were such that the District
Court should have declined to adjudicate this controversy. Pp.
360 U. S.
(a) The desirability of avoiding unseemly conflict between two
sovereignties, the unnecessary impairment of state functions, and
the premature determination of constitutional questions should have
led the District Court to stay its hand. Pp. 360 U. S.
(b) Another reason why the District Court should have stayed its
hand is to be found in the complex and varying effects which the
contemplated state action may have upon different landowners. Pp.
360 U. S.
Page 360 U. S. 220
(c) There is no reason to suppose that the State will not accord
full constitutional scope to the statutory phrase "actual taking of
property"; but, should it fail to do so, recourse may be had to
this Court. P. 360 U. S.
Opinion of the Court by MR. JUSTICE STEWART, announced by MR.
This action was instituted in the District Court for the Western
District of Pennsylvania by owners of property abutting a section
of highway which runs between downtown Pittsburgh and the Greater
Pittsburgh Airport. The complaint stated that the Secretary of
Highways and the Governor of Pennsylvania were about to designate
that section of the road a "limited access highway" under authority
of a Pennsylvania statute. Claiming that such action would deprive
them of their property without due process of law, since the
Pennsylvania statute allegedly did not provide compensation for
loss of access to the highway, the plaintiffs asked for injunctive
relief and for a judgment declaring the statute
The legislation under which it was asserted the state officials
were planning to act is the Pennsylvania Limited Access Highways
Act of 1945. [Footnote 1
Act defines a limited
Page 360 U. S. 221
access highway as "a public highway to which owners or occupants
of abutting property or the traveling public have no right of
ingress or egress to, from or across such highway, except as may be
provided by the authorities responsible therefor." [Footnote 2
] It authorizes the Secretary of
Highways, with the approval of the Governor, to declare any
highway, or part thereof, to be a limited access highway. [Footnote 3
] Section 8 of the statute,
as amended in 1947, provides:
"The owner or owners of private property affected by the
construction or designation of a limited access highway . . . shall
be entitled only to damages arising from an actual taking of
property. The Commonwealth shall not be liable for consequential
damages where no property is taken. . . ."
The latter section was specifically attacked by the plaintiffs,
who claimed that, in the light of the Pennsylvania courts'
interpretation of other statutes, this provision would be construed
to mean that compensation was to be paid only if land were taken.
The Limited Access Highways Act itself had never been construed by
the courts of Pennsylvania.
The district judge issued a temporary restraining order.
Thereafter, a three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§§ 2281 and 2284. After stipulations of fact were filed, the
District Court entered an order staying proceedings to permit the
parties to seek a determination of their rights under the statute
in the courts of Pennsylvania.
Thereupon, the plaintiffs filed an equitable proceeding in the
Common Pleas Court of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. That court
pointed out that the plaintiffs were asking for a determination
"whether or not a taking
Page 360 U. S. 222
of property has occurred and what damages shall be awarded
therefor, and that, if the depriving them of access is found to be
a taking of a compensable property right, that plaintiffs'
legitimate interests will be constitutionally safeguarded by a
resort to viewers proceedings and, if necessary, by later appeals
to the courts."
Creasy v. Lawler,
8 Pa.Dist. & Co.R.2d 535,
As a court of equity, the county court found it proper to
determine only the last of these questions, and its answer was
"All of plaintiffs' rights can be protected and secured in a
proceeding before viewers, as is provided in section 8 of The
Limited Access Highways Act of May 29, 1945. . . . Here, the
legislature, in The Limited Access Highways Act, . . . has provided
a way in which every property owner may have it decided whether he
is entitled to compensation and, if so, when, for what, and in what
amounts. . . . Should the Commonwealth proceed, then at that time
plaintiffs will have the right to proceed before viewers on the
question of their right to damages. In the orderly course of the
procedure provided by The Limited Access Highways Act, they will
have a right of appeal to the common pleas court and a jury trial,
and still later to have their rights adjudicated in the appellate
courts. At all times, their constitutional rights, whatever they
may be, will be guarded and protected."
8 Pa.Dist. & Co. R.2d 538 539. This decision was affirmed
per curiam by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which explicitly
adopted the lower court's opinion. 389 Pa. 635, 133 A.2d 178.
Further proceedings were then had in the District Court.
Although stating its awareness
"that the federal courts should be reluctant to exercise
jurisdiction in cases where the plaintiffs' constitutional rights
will be properly
Page 360 U. S. 223
protected in the state tribunal and where the statute under
attack has not yet been construed by the State Courts,"
nevertheless the District Court proceeded to adjudicate the
merits of the controversy, believing that the plaintiffs might be
irreparably harmed during the period required to determine their
rights in the state courts. "Without venturing to predict the
ultimate decision of the Pennsylvania Courts on the issue of
compensation," the District Court was of the view that the
Pennsylvania Legislature did not intend to compensate abutting
landowners "whose right of access to an existing highway is
destroyed by the designation of that highway as a limited access
highway." For that reason, the court found the statute repugnant to
the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A final decree
was issued, permanently enjoining, in the most sweeping terms, the
Secretary of Highways and the Governor from proceeding. Creasy
v. Stevens, 160 F.
, 409. [Footnote
] The case is here by way of a direct appeal, 28 U.S.C. §
1253, of which this Court noted probable jurisdiction. 358 U.S.
It was the clear pronouncement of the Pennsylvania courts that
the state statute provides a complete procedure to guard and
protect the plaintiffs' constitutional rights "at all times." In
the light of this pronouncement, it is difficult to perceive the
basis for the District Court's conclusion that the plaintiffs would
be irreparably harmed
Page 360 U. S. 224
unless the state officers were enjoined from proceeding under
the statute. There is no question here of the State's right to
create or designate a limited access highway. The only question is
the plaintiffs' right to compensation. It must be assumed that the
courts of Pennsylvania meant what they said in stating that the
plaintiffs will be afforded a procedure through which the full
measure of their rights under the United States Constitution will
be preserved. Assuming, however, that there was a basis to support
intervention by a court of equity, the District Court, we think,
should nevertheless have declined to adjudicate this
The circumstances which should impel a federal court to abstain
from blocking the exercise by state officials of their appropriate
functions are present here in a marked degree. The considerations
which support the wisdom of such abstention have been so thoroughly
and repeatedly discussed by this Court as to require little
elaboration. Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.
; Chicago v. Fieldcrest Dairies,
316 U. S. 168
Spector Motor Service Co. v. McLaughlin, 323 U.
; American Federation of Labor v. Watson,
327 U. S. 582
Government Employees Organizing Committee v. Windsor,
353 U. S. 364
See also Alabama Public Service Comm'n v. Southern R. Co.,
341 U. S. 341
Reflected among the concerns which have traditionally counseled a
federal court to stay its hand are the desirability of avoiding
unseemly conflict between two sovereignties, the unnecessary
impairment of state functions, and the premature determination of
constitutional questions. All those factors are present here.
At least one additional reason for abstention in the present
case is to be found in the complex and varying effects which the
contemplated state action may have upon the different landowners.
Some of them may be completely deprived of access; others may have
access to existing roads or service roads to be constructed;
Page 360 U. S. 225
others may have access to the highway itself through points of
ingress and egress established under the statute. In the state
court proceedings, the case of each landowner will be considered
separately, with whatever particular problems each case may
There is no reason to suppose that the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania will not accord full constitutional scope to the
statutory phrase "actual taking of property." [Footnote 5
] If, after all is said and done in the
Pennsylvania courts, any of the plaintiffs believe that the
Commonwealth has deprived them of their property without due
process of law, this Court will be here.
1945, May 29, P.L. 1108, No. 402, � 1 et seq., as amended, 1947,
June 10, P.L. 481, No. 213, and 1957, May 31, P.L. 234, No. 111, 36
Purdon's Pa.Stat.Ann. � 2391.1 et seq.
36 Purdon's Pa.Stat.Ann. § 2391.1.
36 Purdon's Pa.Stat.Ann. § 2391.2.
The language of the court's order was as follows:
"Now, therefore, it is finally Determined, Ordered, Adjudged and
Decreed that the defendants, Lewis M. Stevens, Secretary of
Highways of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and George M. Leader,
Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, be and they hereby
are permanently enjoined from enforcing or otherwise complying with
the Pennsylvania 'Limited-Access Highways Act,' 1945, May 29, P.L.
1108, § 1 et seq., as amended, 36 Purdon's Pa.Stat.Ann. § 2391.1
so as to interfere with or deprive the plaintiffs
of their right of ingress or egress to, from or across the 'Airport
Parkway' in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania."
Bowie, Limiting Highway Access, 4 Md.L.Rev. 219
(1940); Clarke, The Limited-Access Highway, 27 Wash.L.Rev. 111
(1952); Cunnyngham, The Limited-Access Highway from a Lawyer's
Viewpoint, 13 Mo.L.Rev. 19 (1948); Duhaime, Limiting Access to
Highways, 33 Ore.L.Rev. 16 (1953); Enfield and McLean, Controlling
the Use of Access, National Academy of Sciences, National Research
Council, Highway Research Board Bulletin No. 101 (1955), p. 70; and
Reese, Legal Aspects of Limiting Highway Access, National Academy
of Sciences, National Research Council, Highway Research Board
Bulletin No. 77 (1953), p. 36.
MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, with whom The CHIEF JUSTICE joins,
A District Court's abstention from the exercise of its properly
invoked jurisdiction is justified, in my view,
"only in the exceptional circumstances where the order to the
parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve one of two
important countervailing interests: either the avoidance of a
premature and perhaps unnecessary decision of a serious federal
constitutional question or the avoidance of the hazard of
unsettling some delicate balance in the area of federal-state
Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux,
Page 360 U. S. 226
360 U. S. 32
(dissenting opinion). Both of these circumstances in which
abstention is justified are present in this case. If the District
Court directs the parties to the Pennsylvania courts, those courts
may interpret the cutting off of access rights as a taking of
property requiring the payment of compensation under Pennsylvania
law. Such an interpretation would obviate any need for
determination of the serious constitutional issue raised in the
Furthermore, the District Court's action has halted at the
threshold the carrying out of a large-scale highway program before
the state courts have had an opportunity to interpret the statute
creating that program. This constitutes an unnecessary interference
with state domestic policy creating undesirable friction in
Therefore, I concur in the judgment of the Court.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting in part.
We are all agreed that the District Court improperly enjoined
the enforcement of the Pennsylvania statute. But I believe that
these property owners are entitled to a declaratory judgment by the
federal court, determining whether access to a highway is a
property right, compensable under the Fifth Amendment (and made
applicable to the States through the Fourteenth, Chicago, B.
& Q. R. Co. v. Chicago, 166 U. S.
Congress has granted the District Courts jurisdiction over cases
arising "under the Constitution," 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as this one
does. That jurisdiction need not be exercised where it would be
obstructive of state action and lead to needless interference with
state agencies. Alabama Public Service Comm'n v. Southern R.
Co., 341 U. S. 341
likewise need not be exercised where the resolution of state law
questions which are complex or unsettled may make it unnecessary to
reach a federal constitutional
Page 360 U. S. 227
question. Spector Motor Service Co. v. McLaughlin,
323 U. S. 101
Chicago v. Fieldcrest Dairies, 316 U.
; American Federation of Labor v. Watson,
327 U. S. 582
these principles are applicable in the main to declaratory judgment
actions as well as to those where injunctions are sought. Great
Lakes Dredge and Dock Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.
In my view, these cases are irrelevant here. We have at bottom
in this case a question whether access to a highway is a property
right which is compensable under the Fifth and Fourteenth
Amendments. If it is compensable, as the District Court ruled,
see 160 F.
, 410-412, this is the most appropriate time to make
the announcement. Particularly is this so when appellees in this
case sought a declaration by the state court of their rights under
the statute and were told that "their constitutional rights,
whatever they may be, will be guarded and protected." Such a ruling
by the District Court would not halt the highway program. But it
might have an effect on engineering designs for new local service
roads to provide substitute means of access to the highways, and it
would make clear to the local authorities what the scope of their
financial commitments in the undertaking is.
A determination of appellees' property rights would not be a
premature decision because of the inability to forecast how the
State will effect its goal of limiting access to its highway.
Whether or not the landowners will be left landlocked or given
access to substitute service roads goes only to the question of the
amount of property "taken," if any. It has nothing to do with the
question of the landowner's property right in access to highway
abutting his land.
We have witnessed in recent times a hostility to the exercise by
federal courts of their power to declare what a citizen's rights
are under local law in diversity cases (Louisiana Power &
Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, ante,
Page 360 U. S. 228
360 U. S. 25
in cases where federal rights are invoked. Public Service
Comm'n v. Wycoff Co., 344 U. S. 237
Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U. S. 167
think the federal courts, created by the First Congress, are today
a haven where rights can sometimes be adjudicated even more
dispassionately than in state tribunals. At least Congress, in its
wisdom, has provided since 1875 (18 Stat. 470) that the lower
federal courts should be the guardian of federal rights. The
judicial intolerance of diversity jurisdiction, noted by my Brother
Brennan in his dissent in Louisiana Power & Light Co. v.
City of Thibodaux, supra,
seems to be spreading to other heads
of federal jurisdiction as the decisions in this case and in
Harrison v. NAACP,
suggest. True it is that the exercise of
that power in some cases would be so utterly disruptive of
state-federal relations as to make it undesirable. As a general
rule, however, the federal courts should be responsible for the
exposition of federal law. It should be their responsibility in
cases properly before them under heads of jurisdiction prescribed
by Congress to construe federal statutes and the Federal
Constitution. There is no more appropriate occasion for the
exercise of that jurisdiction than the present case which involves
the question whether or not access rights constitute "property" in
the constitutional sense. [Footnote
] That question concerns not state law, but
Page 360 U. S. 229
a concept imbedded in the Bill of Rights. It is in no way
entangled with local law. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution
makes all local projects bow to that concept of "property." And, in
my view, there is no more appropriate tribunal for an adjudication
of that issue than the Federal District Court, which in this case
acted at the very threshold of this engineering project and made a
ruling that informs the local authorities of the full reach of
their responsibilities. This is not intermeddling in state affairs,
nor creating needless friction. It is an authoritative
pronouncement at the beginning of a controversy which saves
countless days in the slow, painful, and costly litigation of
separate individual lawsuits in state viewers proceedings.
case invoked federal jurisdiction not only
under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and § 1332 (diversity), but also under §
1343 (civil rights).
Title 28 U.S.C. § 2201 permits a federal court to declare a
party's rights in the case of an actual controversy. There is such
a controversy here. Appellants have expressed their intention to
declare the highway on which appellees' properties abut to be a
limited access highway, and have consistently argued that appellees
have no right to compensation, although they may be denied access
to the highway which they previously had. This is enough to create
an actual controversy which a federal court may settle if its
processes are, as here, properly invoked.